More Evidence, Better Policy: Understanding the Foundations for Evidence-Based Policymaking Act

Lena Nour, MPP Staff Writer, Brief Policy Perspectives 

The American people are more skeptical of public institutions today than they have been for the better part of five decades. A recent Pew Research Center poll found that fewer than one in five Americans has confidence that their government will “do what is right” the majority of the time. This year, Congress took an important step to rebuild the trust of the American public by encouraging agencies to operate government programs more effectively and efficiently.  On January 14th, 2019, President Trump signed the Foundations for Evidence-Based Policymaking Act of 2018 (which incorporates the OPEN Government Data Act) into law with bipartisan sponsorship. This new law may change the way the federal government selects, funds, and evaluates public programs.

Evidence-Based Policymaking

evidence

The call for “evidence-based policy” focuses on the use of program evaluation to produce rigorous research findings, data, and analytics to inform decision making. The Act requires departments and agencies to submit annual plans to the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) and calls upon them to frame policy-relevant questions and address these questions with evidence and analysis. The legislation also encourages agencies to increase their evaluation capacity by hiring and training staff to develop questions and evaluation strategies that will provide useful data to decision-makers.

Many of the law’s provisions were recommended by the U.S. Commission on Evidence-Based Policymaking. This Commission was formed to strengthen the federal government’s evidence-building and policymaking efforts. The 15-member Commission included academic researchers, data experts, program administrators, and privacy experts who used a multidisciplinary approach to identify existing barriers to evidence-based evaluation in government.

Implications for Federal Agencies

The Act is a bipartisan effort to enhance the transparency of taxpayer-funded programs. At its core, it is designed to empower agencies to determine whether and how public investments achieve their intended outcomes. In the past, evaluation plans often stalled when agencies lacked the expertise and funding to collect and use evidence. Lack of support from leadership may be another reason why evaluation efforts have stagnated in some agencies. Large evaluation studies may require years of data collection to measure how programs work. Under the new law, agencies with little evaluation capacity will need to outline a framework for integrating evidence-based policymaking into how they conduct business.  

The Act will go into effect in mid-July, giving agencies a few months to align their strategic plans with the law’s evaluation and data protection protocols. Many evaluation advocates, including the Bipartisan Policy Center’s Evidence-Based Policymaking Initiative, are working to provide advice and expertise on implementation options and strategies to federal agencies. Additionally, OMB’s Federal Data Strategy team is working to provide widely accepted data stewardship standards to guide federal agencies by developing ​principles, practices, and action steps. 

Titles I and II of the Foundations for Evidence-Based Policymaking Act of 2018 require agency administrators to designate a Chief Evaluation Officer and Chief Data Officer to fill critical gaps in leadership. While some critics of the law may view this provision as an extension of government bureaucracy, these positions are necessary to carry out mission-critical evaluation activities while protecting data.

The Congressional Budget Office estimates that implementing this law will cost approximately $75 million over a five-year period. While implementation comes with a price, this legislation should encourage agencies to prioritize evidence-building.

Limitations of the Legislation

This law lays critical groundwork for emphasizing the importance of evidence-based policymaking among agency leadership. However, it is important to note that the law defines “agencies” according to 31 U.S. Code § 901, and thereby omits independent regulatory agencies such as  the Federal Communication Commission (FCC). This omission could limit the scope of the law’s impact, given that independent agencies could also benefit from a renewed emphasis on evidence-based policymaking. For example, a 2015 report by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) encouraged the FCC to conduct a program evaluation to measure the effectiveness of its Lifeline Program. The program intends to lower the cost of telephone service for qualifying low-income households. After thorough analysis, GAO recommended an evaluation to measure the program’s progress towards its stated goals. 

Building on Best Practices

The Foundations for Evidence-Based Policymaking Act of 2018 calls for collaboration across agencies to facilitate the use of evidence to improve policy, programs, and management decision-making. Notably, a few agencies have made significant headway in strengthening evaluation and data protection capacities with strategies that other agencies could emulate. For example, in 2010, the Department of Labor (DOL) established an Evaluation Office which emphasizes “rigor, relevance, transparency, independence and ethics” to improve DOL services and returns on investment. In an interview with the Gov Innovator podcast, former DOL Chief Evaluation Officer Demetra Smith Nightingale highlighted the need for agencies to institute a ‘culture of evaluation’ to guide priorities and focus on improvement. Through the 2018 National Defense Authorization Act, the Department of Defense appointed its first Chief Data Officer. This landmark appointment underscores the growing recognition of the need to collect, protect and analyze data in the federal government’s largest agency. 

The Foundations for Evidence-Based Policymaking Act of 2018 has the capacity to stimulate a new era of evidence-based policy that will require agencies to experiment with, evaluate, and adapt approaches to improve performance and services. More strategic use of evaluation could inform government decision-making and lead to more effective and efficient public policies that can better serve the American people.

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